Monday, November 29, 2010

An objection to Sam Harris's asshattery

Posting a little late, but OK. I've wanted to write about a lot today, but if nothing else, I want to offer an objection to something Sam Harris (don't you just want to smack him?) has been saying about morality. One of his basic starting points is that all moral judgments boil down to a concern about the experience of conscious beings. I want to offer what I think is a pretty good objection to this proposition.

I'm going to pose a kind of benign Matrix-like scenario: Suppose all of humanity, by their own volition or by the choice of a ruling person or class, were put to sleep and installed in a grand space-ark capable of piloting itself through empty regions of space until the heat-death of the universe, fueling itself on what it can find (hydrogen and oxygen from planets, moons, asteroids, and comets maybe) in the course of its journey. The humans on board will spend the rest of their lives sustained in peak physical health and in sleep by machines, while a perfect simulation of human life is pumped into their heads; maybe even a life better than human life can really be. Their simulated world is shared, allowing them to carry on genuine relationships with one another. Nothing is denied them, and they can even progress in the arts and science as far as they are inclined without disrupting the simulation. None of the people aboard the ark are aware that they inhabit a simulation, or that the world they experience is an artificial one.

There are a thousand reasons why this can't happen and wouldn't work. But for the sake of the scenario, suppose it does. All of what we value in conscious experience is accounted for, for our ark denizens. Sam Harris appears to have nothing to complain about here. By every measure I recall him having suggested, all of the humans in existence are flourishing, perhaps at their peak. The question now is, is this scenario a good one? Would this be a good course for humanity to take, in a moral sense?

Some people might say yes. I am definitely not one of them. From within the scenario, of course, I would not be able to object to it, but regarding the conception from outside, I see it as a pretty awful fate. For myself I can say, and I think many people would agree with me, that while the quality of the experience of conscious beings is certainly part of what is important in a moral sense, it isn't the only thing: I want to be right. I want what I experience to be real. I want to know, as far as I can, what's really going on, and I want the significance of my life never to be bounded or enclosed, except by the finiteness of its own inertia. Are these moral concerns? For me, they are; they are commitments that I hold, and they are reasons why I would reject such a scenario in principle, and encourage other people to reject it along with me. They are moral concerns, and they are not altogether dependent on judgments about the quality of the experiences of conscious beings.

Such is one possible objection to one of Sam Harris's premises. There are many others. The fact that he's kind of a smarmy dickhead is not one of them, but I don't want to close this entry without pointing that out.

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